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PETERSBURG, Alaska (AP) — Residents in southeast Alaska are helping wildlife officials track bats in an effort to combat a disease that has killed millions of the animals.
White-nose bat syndrome is a fungus that grows on bats' noses, irritating them and waking them up early from hibernation, which can cause them to starve to death.
The disease has been recently found in Washington state and has previously killed 7 million bats on the East Coast. Wildlife officials said it is likely the disease will soon reach Alaska, but because little is known about Alaska's bat population, it is unclear how the disease will affect them.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has asked Alaska residents to drive specific routes with special monitoring equipment in their vehicles to pick up where bats are hiding, KFSK-FM reported (http://bit.ly/1MBmtz0). Scientists want to find out where the bats are hang out to see if some populations are more vulnerable to illnesses.
"We're getting a feel that they hibernate less in caves and more in cracks in the ground, talus slopes and things which makes us hope that white-nosed syndrome won't be quite as serious up here because there's not hundreds of thousands of bats all aggregated into a cave hibernating together so it may not spread as fast anyway but we really don't know at this point," said Steve Lewis with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Bats have a reputation for being scary or pests like flying mice, Lewis said, but the animals are an important part of the ecosystem. Bats only have one pup a year, which means an illness like white-nose bat syndrome could be devastating, he said.
"So it's really, really serious," Lewis said. "It may cause a couple of extinctions of our North American bats."
The citizen bat monitoring program will run May through September in southeast Alaska. The program began in Petersburg last summer.
Information from: KFSK-FM, http://www.alaska.net/~kfsk/
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